Dies Irae at the Overlook Hotel – on US-criticism in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

I haven’t been around much on the blog these past few days, the reason for this being that my asshat boyfriend broke up with me this Monday. Accordingly, I have been very busy hiding under my blanket in my room, eating the occassional candy bar, listening alternately to “Dove sono i bei momenti” and  Johnny Cash’s “Cry Cry Cry”, and feeling sorry for myself. I’m proud to say, however, that on Monday night I was actually resourceful enough to get out of my room and go seek out Anna’s pleasant company. Definitely a good idea, that! Possibly urged on by my own anger and hurt, I brought with me a DVD with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to show Anna, who, reluctant towards horrors, had never seen the movie before. She liked it!

The Shining

And so did I, although this was not my first time of watching it. I really think it’s a masterpiece, not just as a horror, but among films in general. The musical score, the art direction, everything works brilliantly under Kubrick’s direction, and the acting is equally wonderful: Jack Nicholson is awesome in what I’ve always considered to be his signature part . Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy is appropriately doormat-y and annoying. Probably a socially awkward person, it makes sense that Wendy would agree to cut herself off from the world for five months along with her borderline-abusive husband – plus the film gets this deliciously alarming edge to it because it’s hard not to identify just a little bit with Jack’s character, when he gets annoyed with his wimpy significant other. I’ve heard that Kubrick really did everything he could to stress out Duvall during the filming with the result of Duvall being a nervous wreck all the time, and while I think that’s a terrible thing to do to a person, I have to say that it works! Finally little Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance (it’s so wonderfully creepy that two of the main characters share names with their portrayers!) delivers a very good and understated child performance, which is important as he is in many of the most poignant scenes in the film. A favourite moment is Danny’s encounter with the ghosts of the two dead girls in the hallway. “Come and play with us, Danny!”. Brrr!

I’ve seen The Shining twice before, but upon re-watching it the other day with Anna, I discovered something that I’d quite overlooked (hee!): The theme of US-criticism! I find this to be a most interesting aspect of the movie, as it gives it almost a kind of allegoric quality (thus defining it as more than just a horror).  I’m sure I’ve not hit upon anything groundbreaking here, but I’d like to explore this aspect of the movie in this post, notwithstanding. 

The allegoric atmosphere, I would say, is established right from the beginning of the movie, with the absolutely beautiful opening scene. Dies Irae in the soundtrack accounts for the universality and the pictures, too, point toward something bigger than just one little hotel: The camera pans through a vast and beautiful American mountain scenery, while the trombone booms out the centuries-old apocalyptic tune. An air of doom hovers over America, a point stressed a little later on in the movie, as Jack takes Wendy and Danny for a drive with him on that same mountain road and the family discusses a dark chapter of American history: The cannibalistic fate of the Donner Party.

The most obvious example of this criticism is probably the point made early in the movie by Stuart Ullman (very nicely depicted by Barry Nelson) about the Overlook Hotel being built upon an old Indian burial ground. The first time I watched the movie, I didn’t think much of this, disregarding it as a classic move within a horror flick – the idea of burial grounds being cursed somehow, boding evil or anyone who disturbs the peace of the slumbering souls in the soil, and all that. But naturally there’s more to it than that, it’s a native American burial ground, and as Ullman almost proudly announces: They had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building the hotel.

Male Pride and The Overlook Hotel

But Ullman is unmistakably proud of this hotel that was erected despite these little hindrances (such as justice for the Indians… and human compassion…), and so is Jack as soon as he’s got the job as the caretaker and starts identifying himself as a hotel employee. The imagery found in Jack’s lines in the course of the movie betrays a kind of male pride in his work as the caretaker, that goes beyond the practical procedures of looking after the hotel (indeed we never really see him occupied with said procedures – Wendy is the only one we see doing any actual care-taking work around the building). “Did you ever stop to think about my responsibilities?!” Jack asks in a poignant scene in the movie, and earlier on his argument for not leaving the hotel to find a doctor for an obviously distressed Danny is that leaving the hotel would mark him as a kind of failure. “It is so f*cking typical of you” Jack sneers at his incredulous wife, “to create a problem like this, when I finally have a chance to accomplish something! (…) I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn’t I?! Shoveling out driveways, working in a car wash! (…) Wendy, I have let you f*ck up my life so far, but I am not going to let you f*ck this up!”

Jack is talking about the novel he’s intending to write, but indeed he might as well be talking about his title as the caretaker, as he seems to feel the same way about this job as his alleged profession as a writer: It appeals to his male pride, and the mere presence of a woman in his life (it seems unlikely that a weak and humble as Wendy should be able to f*ck up anyone’s life!) is a threat to this pride, in as much as she represents something cyclic, centred around the small things in life, the idea of going to work solely to cover basic needs, working in a car wash and the like, and thus she is a threat to him and his mission, as a man. The dialogue always reminded me of this sculpture, by sculptor Rudolph Tegner (Earthbound, the work is called).

Equally, when ghostly Delbert Grady wishes to urge on Jack in his work as the caretaker, he does so by taking him to the men’s room where he implores of Jack to step into character as a patriarch (“Perhaps [your wife and son] need a good talking to.”) and shares with him how he, himself, kept in control his two children – two girls, no less. Grady mocks Jack for lacking those same patriarchal qualities when Jack has been momentarily overpowered by Wendy and is locked in the storage: “I see you can hardly have taken care of the… business, we discussed. (…) I and others have come to believe that your heart is not in this. That you haven’t the belly for it. (…) [Your wife] seems to have got the better of you.”  

Now, what does this, Jack’s male pride have to do with US-criticism? Well, nothing, one might argue. But it also just might have something to do with it. I definitely think that this side of Jack alludes to the imperialistic policy that one may or may not associate with the USA, this ambition to accomplish things for the sake simply of accomplishing them, to erect a great monument, to do something that is greater than man and woman and their petty needs. Arguably this is what finds its expression in the way Jack’s little son is dressed: Throughout the movie we see the boy wearing sweaters with American icons stitched into them: Mickey Mouse’s winning smile decorates a sweater in one scene, in another it’s the Apollo 13, erect and proud as the Overlook Hotel.

“Great party, isn’t it?”

But getting back to my initial point about the Native Americans and the sense of doom over America that haunts this movie as much as any ghost – I think the motif of the ghost party is a very interesting one in the light of this theme I’m exploring. The concept of ghostly partying is often seen within the genre of horror; we find it in Disney World’s Haunted Mansion, the idea of a feast of the dead is crucial in zombie flicks, and then there’s the deadly party in what I find to be The Shining’s most interesting horror predecessor: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of Red Death”.

I followed a course at the university last year about 19th century American literature, and my professor intriguingly read this short story as a criticism of the USA: Prospero is the name of the prince in the story, and thus he is a namesake of the Columbo-ish Prospero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sociological problem that Poe points out and criticizes in his story (according to this interpretation) is that of trying to exclude the rest of the world and prosper selfishly within a closed party. As one will remember, in “The Mask of Red Death” Prince Prospero has invited all his friends to reside with him and party at his castle and create their own little microcosmos there, while outside the rest of the world die a painful death from a plague called The Red Death. But in the end Death catches up with the party in the shape of a eerie, grim-reaping stranger among the party guests, and the inhabitants fall all the more rapidly, one by one, because of their exclusive lodgings. One might try to live by a selfish policy and follow one’s mission of creating a world of one’s own, erecting castles over the tangled roots and the messy soil, and put oneself above the rest of a miserable, suffering world, but ultimately Death and an inbred, claustrophobic kind of consumption thrive within such closed parties. Another party, the Donner Party painfully demonstrated this (while snowbound forced to resort to the most hideous claustrophobically horrifying scenario: that of human flesh within human flesh – cannibalism), and it’s pretty much the same thing that the Overlook Hotel party bears witness of. Upon having driven away the natives, they can party forever at the Overlook Hotel, celebrating their victory. 

This is the party they strive to maintain and a crude form of xenophobia is the result of this striving. It is therefore hardly coincidental that Afro-American Dick Hallorann, very much in touch with his origins (as implied by the heavily emphasized posters of Afro-iconic women in Hallorann’s room) is the potential rescuer for Wendy and Danny as they wish to break out from the hotel. The hotel ball is a consumptious, claustrophobic kind of party. All the guests are dead, and as if the Roaring 20s-setting weren’t decadent enough in itself, we become witnesses to grotesque scenes of sex, death, and bestiality mixed together (the infamous bear-suit blowjob scene, as well as Jack’s make-out scene with the dead woman in room 237). Surely it’s no coincidence that we learn at the very end that the never-ending ghost party was a Fourth of July Ball!

Once again, I’m probably not the first one to point out this theme. And it’s possible that I’ve misinterpreted several of the above mentioned scenes. But I do think the US-critical theme is there in Kubrick’s theme, and I think it’s an interesting point to explore! Another intriguing level to what I think is one of the best horror films ever made, and I’m sure I’ve not even discovered half of all the points supporting this theme. What, for instance, is the significance of shrewd and sympathetic little Danny, who actually does manage to break free from the party? I hope, and imagine, that I’m not quite done finding new levels to the movie.

/marie

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January 12, 2007. Films.

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